by John Thomson, President
International Federation of Municipal Engineering
In achieving a fundamental shift in energy use the public are ultimately those who will enact the process.
This is achieved through political power where legislation and policies are formed through consensus.
So how does the engineer influence that process?
The Municipal Engineer is simply a Civil Engineer who is wholly employed by elected members (politicians) to undertake the civil engineering aspects of the Authorities that these politicians represent. They provide a deep technical understanding and are considered experts in this field by the politicians. A simple example of this is the requirement to manage and maintain the roads of that Authority.
The detailed work of Municipal Engineers is to oversee such engineering aspects, report to the elected members on the issues, and provide solutions which include costs and timescales to make improvements. In return, the executive process of Authorities empowers Municipal Engineers to undertake the work required with agreed costs and timescales.
In addition, the elected members will react to national / international understanding and require their Engineers to make plans and procedures to meet these requirements.
A major concern of all politicians now, and the informed public, is addressing climate change and a major part of that process is decarbonising transport.
As a direct result of this political drive, Municipal Engineers are currently tasked with decarbonising transport under the "managing roads" aspect of their duties.
The decarbonising of our environment is a complex issue and requires the cooperation of more than Municipal Engineers to achieve the outcome. However, they are influential when updating the public infrastructure to facilitate the change that is coming. They are also very influential in relating technical aspects of that process to Politicians.
Unfortunately, the new technology for decarbonising transport is not yet agreed and there is a void in understanding. Engineers need clear guidance as to the way ahead.
As you will appreciate anyone trying to foretell the future runs a range of risks, not least to their reputation by getting things wrong. History is full of such failed attempts; therefore it is important to understand key elements that drive societies change, and more importantly, which elements resist or restrict such change. I coined a phrase some years ago when working with other professions, "Don't compromise tomorrow through poor design today" and I maintain this approach constantly as the time and cost impacts of getting things wrong to a city economy is grave.
A clear indicator of measuring change is to study historical events and understand why certain ideas and processes were adopted as key enablers against others. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century set in motion societies demand and reliance on energy for a range of functions.
One of the most important aspects of that revolution that persists in modern life is access to efficient and effective transport systems. These systems have been instrumental in forming and shaping modern city design but it needs to be noted that the key aspect of all transport engines is that they rely on being an easily transportable and cheap energy sources. Coal and Oil derived products met that ambition easily.
The transport of goods and passengers is a singular subject that reflects and influences the success of societies economies and politics.
The current road network is the largest UK asset by some margin and serves all of societies needs every day. It is possible to augment this network with light or heavy rail or similar systems to relieve heavy concentrations of traffic but overall, it is realistic to assume that roads will continue to form a basic element of modern city design, so mobile energy is a fundamental component of that process.
I am aware that this stance is not always widely supported however, we need to understand resistance to change to get our predictions close to accurate. The achievement of mechanised individual transport systems attaches a range of emotions. At a basic level, cars provide a timely and convenient transport system, they are personal spaces that are, let's not be too surprised at this, loved by many who will not give them up easily. Personally, I don't think it is possible to put the car genie back into the bottle now. However, it's more likely that we as a society may learn to use it differently in the future.
Current international environmental concerns and actions in relation to reduced burning fossil fuels are well known. Therefore, a critical question for modern Governments and societies is how do we reduce reliance on fossil fuels and rapidly move to new energy sources whilst maintaining, and developing existing related benefits?
History is clear that to get change there must be a wide public acceptance without compromising current benefits. I think it is fair to state today that currently there is a widespread public acceptance of environmental damage done by fossil fuels so changing from that should be straightforward. However, to achieve this rapid change the alternative energy source must be readily available and match existing fuel benefits. Clearly, this is a major aspect of modern development and given our fundamental drive to get things right, the challenge is which energy sources do we adopt so public Infrastructure is correctly developed to that end?
Any analysis of the question, which energy source? - results in electricity as the constant outcome.
Clean electric power generation can be achieved from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydropower and for some countries Geothermal Power. Nonetheless, I do have grave concerns regards achieving reliable and responsive energy from some of these sources. This concern stems back to when I was on-site at a large wind farm in Scotland some time ago, it was the day before everybody broke up for the Christmas holidays and the demand for power over that period would be great. It was a misty day, not a breath of wind and every turbine was still, no power was being generated just at a time it was in demand. Alternative clean power such as from nuclear sources are reliable but carry an unfair stigma within the press. There is hope here through ongoing developments such as Plutonium/Thorium pellet mix technology that may provide a future solution to energy from nuclear waste, or indeed, Fusion, but not today.
I have every confidence that sufficient energy provision will be achieved and from a global aspect, there are a number of countries that would greatly benefit from Solar and geothermal Power.
These generation issues aside, there is a key aspect of electric energy that is fundamental to the majority of transport systems, that is its ability to be mobile. Indeed, capturing electric energy from any source so it can be deployed where and when required would be of great benefit to many systems.
During a period when I was associated with national transport planning, I was only too aware of the high cost and complex planning issues associated with providing new rail infrastructure as opposed to road infrastructure, indeed road infrastructure is a requirement by authorities when planning developments.
During that period, I had the opportunity to experience both electric battery-powered cars and Hydrogen fuel cell cars. I have always enjoyed the many aspects of petrol and diesel-fuelled vehicles all my life, but I was really impressed with this new technology. Both types of vehicles were quiet and had remarkably responsive electric engines.
With public infrastructure requirements in mind and my opinion as to which technology will be favoured I have to judge which system replicates current practice and therefore more easily accepted by the general public. My experience is that since public opinion is closely related to political decision making that is key to which technology may be favoured.
I have been responsible for installing many electric vehicle charging points throughout my area for some years now. However public enthusiasm in embracing electric vehicles batteries, cost, poor confidence and resistance to change to purely electric batteries is an issue for car buyers. Current electric battery technology has raised some concerns, not least the Lithium reaction, which affects public acceptance and choice.
I have to say I did favour the hydrogen fuel celled vehicle because of its obvious similarities to the present oil-fuelled vehicles. It is fuelled similarly to petrol at a pump and its range and ability to indicate the remaining range is similar to petrol-based systems. That, together with the environmental benefits, makes public acceptance easier as opposed to charging times and questionable ranges of battery vehicles.
Therefore, currently, there are two basic fuel options for transport futures, Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) and Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HFCV). Both technologies have the capabilities of meeting the climate change aspirations in some aspect. We are arguably at the "Betamax" moment where the forward direction is being decided, so we need to get it right because the cost and time aspects are grave if we make wrong choices.
There are a number of advantages of HFCV over BEV which should be identified in making decisions.
The general public discussions have been very much in favour of BEV technology and as far as the reports produced by Municipal Engineers to elected members this is really the only option. This has been widely reported in the press to influence public opinion. As a result, widely installing electric charging points are deemed the solution. This is apparently the only show in town. My experience highlights thesis not a simple operation with the need to consider, and cost of installation of new cabling, the complex switchgear and metering of electric charging points in addition to "back office" administration.
However, there is a major flaw in this approach.
In June 2019 a group of scientists led by Professor Richard Herrington, the Natural History Museum's head of earths sciences warned the UK government that to replace all cars on British roads with BEVs, UK demand for batteries need to require:
The effect of this, even it was feasible, on costs of these minerals will render such batteries extremely expensive and ultimately on the cost to consumers (e.g., the Worlds cobalt reserves are in The Democratic Republic of the Congo.)
The above demand excludes current material demands for battery packs use, e.g., power tools, lighting etc.
Sustainability - Life expectancy of an Li=ion battery is about 8 years and end of use recycling of li-ion batteries are extremely uncertain.
On this sobering evidence, BEV for all vehicles is not a realistic option but may form part of a solution for a proportion of all UK car traffic. Note, International material demand will far exceed UK demand.
This questions government aspirations to meet decarbonising transport target dates whilst maintaining the current trend.
Recent work in North East England by a Nissan include the construction of new technology factories. The risk of this is considerable as they are aware of the rapid change in technological advances and that it takes some 2 years to construct a factory. This is likely to be commercially sensitive however recent work by Manchester University in developing Graphene technology may overtake Lithium technology as the BEV of the future. That being the case much of the above disadvantages would be redundant. But not today.
Piggybacking on the manufacturing of Hydrogen using renewable electrolysis to split water into oxygen and hydrogen.
Waste CO2 is collected and combined with Hydrogen to create synthetic methanol.
The resultant fuel is called MTG (Methanol to gasoline) technology.
This is a carbon neutral process
Being developed by Porsche/Siemens Energy through the "Haru One" project
Formula 1 racing has committed to synthetic fuels from 2025 to achieve net zero-carbon status.
Porsche has confirmed it is taking part and developing the fuel to race in 2025.
This fuel is useable in current internal combustion engines thus preserving current vehicles.
This develops other similar processes and is deemed safer for air pollution.
This is not a clean fuel because of its exhausts but is a carbon neutral process that many classic car organisations may adopt to maintain their historic legacy of cars, which is worth a considerable amount of money and delivers many Billions into international industries.
It may be considered as an interim solution to many resistances.
I have used the car as a demonstration of energy mobility and how hydrogen fuel cells address that issue, but potentially the greater opportunity may be in energy storage.
Society and reports are fixated on clean energy manufacturing systems, but I seem to sense a limited appreciation of energy storage. This is potentially where Hydrogen has the greater advantage, but there are key issues that need to be addressed before this is widely accepted.
Research informs us that to achieve rapid societal changes the public want to engage in the discussions and that the resultant change is better, cheaper or at least no more disruptive to which the public currently enjoy. That is our challenge.
The solution for Municipal Engineers and therefore politicians is unclear. National Green Hydrogen policy is a key enabler as to how this fuel is manufactured, how much can be obtained through the substantial energy demands of electrolyse and compression, and indeed where that can be done in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. Transport and storage are similar in type to the oil industry, albeit alterations to the technical elements of such containerisation.
Whatever systems we adopt needs to be better defined now so we have time to build the facilities and public systems to match the urgency of the cause.